WILKES-BARRE — Just like 50 years ago, they sat in awe of the words of the speech that changed minds, attitudes and opinions.
As Ron Felton, president of the Wilkes-Barre Chapter of the NAACP, gave his impassioned version of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a Dream” speech, it was obvious that the message remains as powerful today as it was in 1963.
The 17-minute speech ends with:
“And when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
Felton delivered the speech almost from memory — pausing only a few times to check his notes. He also injected a few Wilkes-Barre references that caught the attention of many of the 200 or so in attendance.
Felton feels strongly about Dr. King and the holiday in his honor. He wants City Hall to close, but he has not been able to convince Mayor Tom Leighton to shut down on the holiday. Felton also feels strongly about the Wilkes-Barre Area School District where he says 45 percent of the students are minorities, yet only one percent of the teachers are minorities.
“This is why we still need to work toward Dr. King’s dream,” Felton said.
The program, held at the King’s College Sheehy-Farmer Campus Center, was accented with reflections by local college students and musical renditions by the Cantores Christi Regis Choir of King’s College and the Mount Zion Choir & aKKord.
Rick Wright, a local insurance man, said he was moved by Felton’s re-enactment and also by the words of Pastor Sean Walker, also a member of the Wilkes-Barre Area School Board.
“Hearing those words again gave me chills,” Wright said. “There is so much going on in the world today and Dr. King’s speech makes us realize we need to continue work together.”
Walker talked about the struggles, suffering and sacrifice that continue today for minorities. He expressed appreciation and gratitude for King and all those who have striven for equal rights for all.
“But have we forgotten how to dream?” Walker asked. “If we do not keep moving forward, we will fall backward. Potential means nothing unless you reach it.”
Walker said in today’s world, crime rises as hope falls.
“Do not accept violence in your neighborhoods,” he said. “Immorality is degrading our society. Today, be so bold and dare to dream again.”
After the program, four King’s College students gathered to talk about what they had just heard. Suzana Silva, 20, a junior from Waterbury, Conn.; Ruthly Cadestin, 21, a senior from Union, N.J.; Justine Kelley, 20, a senior from Washington D.C.; and Sarah Holland, 19, a sophomore from Moosic, agreed that the program impressed them.
“Everybody has a right to equality and equal rights,” Kelley said. “We can never get too comfortable.”
Cadestin said the U.S. is a diverse nation with people of different cultures whom all have something to offer. She said many people were raised in homes were bigotry and prejudice were prevalent.
“Our generation has the opportunity to be the light of the future,” she said.
Silva said Thursday night’s event was the first time she had ever heard Dr. King’s speech in its entirety.
“It’s really amazing to think what life was like 50 years ago for so many people,” she said. “Everyone should be treated equally and this program raised the awareness for a lot of people.”
Holland said it’s the responsibility of everyone to set a good example and treat each other equally and with respect.
Cadestin said when she was in grade school she wasn’t allowed to visit the home of her best friend because she (Cadestin) was black.
“Even today, there are too many negative factors in life,” she said.